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UN: Number of Displaced Iraqis Highest in Mideast Since 1948

The U.N. refugee agency says the number of Iraqis fleeing violence in their country is the largest displacement of people in the Middle East in over half a century. The agency is appealing for $60 million to help hundreds-of-thousands of refugees and internally displaced, as Lisa Schlein reports for VOA from UNHCR headquarters in Geneva.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees says about one out of every eight Iraqis is now displaced, and tens-of-thousands are fleeing every month to escape, what it calls, the unremitting violence in Iraq.

The agency says the current exodus is the largest long-term population movement in the Middle East since the displacement of Palestinians following the creation of Israel in 1948.

UNHCR Spokesman Ron Redmond tells VOA, the neighboring host countries are bearing an enormous burden.

"The welcome mat is starting to wear pretty thin in some of these surrounding countries, because they already have such a huge burden, and that is what we are concerned about, as well," he said. "We need additional help so that we can help those governments that are hosting so many hundreds-of-thousands of Iraqis, because they simply do not have the resources or the infrastructure now to cope. We want to ensure that they get the help they need so that borders will remain open to those who are fleeing this violence."

The UNHCR estimates about 1.7 million Iraqis out of a population of 26 million are displaced internally, and up to two million others have fled to nearby countries. Redmond says many of these people were displaced before the war began in 2003.

But, he says, increasing numbers of Iraqis are fleeing escalating violence. He says, last year nearly half a million Iraqis fled to other areas inside the country and that between 40,000-50,000 continue to flee their homes every month.

"We have a planning figure that we set, based on what we consider to be a realistic possibility, that we could see up to 2.3 million internally displaced people within Iraq by the end of 2007," he said.

Redmond says a major aim of the appeal is to ensure effective protection and assistance for up to 200,000 of the most vulnerable Iraqis who have mainly gone to Jordan and Syria. Redmond says the UNHCR also will assist non-Iraqi refugees inside the country, including thousands of Palestinians, Turks, Iranians, Syrians, and Sudanese.